In playing their second game in 24 hours the fear was that the Montreal Canadiens might be tired against the Toronto Maple Leafs last night. Add to that the fact that they arrived in Toronto late Friday night and that they spent a lot of energy in the third period against the Red Wings, and it seemed like the perfect storm might be brewing.
The only saving grace, at least on paper, was that the Habs were playing against a Leafs team that has a lot of trouble scoring goals. The Leafs are third from last in the league in goals, with just 65 in 29 games—a 2.24 goals per game average.
Hardly an offensive juggernaut.
But that didn't matter last night, as the Canadiens played a passive trapping game from the first buzzer, allowing the Leafs to dominate play in their zone. The Canadiens had a few decent shifts to start the game but seemed to be suffering the after effects of the previous night's tilt against the Red Wings.
With the Canadiens sitting back and letting the Leafs take the play to them, they once again got themselves into penalty trouble which further compounded their problems.
The Leafs opened the scoring in the first when Alex Auld lost sight of a shot off of the backboards. With Auld looking the wrong way Phil Kessel put the puck into the empty net to make it 1-0.
Tomas Kaberle made it 2-0 when his shot on a two-on-one eluded Alex Auld low stick side. Shortly after the goal, Jaroslav Spacek and Clarke MacArthur dusted off in the Leafs zone, with Spacek leaving the game with an "upper body" injury. Fortunately for the Habs, Yannick Weber was in the lineup as a forward on the fourth line and Jacques Martin quickly shifted him to D with Roman Hamrlik.
The fight seemed momentarily to wake the Habs from their slumber, and they finally started to get a few scoring chances.
Both teams played a sleepy second period until Jacques Martin switched Michael Cammalleri back to the first line with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn. The trio produced the Habs' first goal of the game when Cammalleri fired a wrister top corner past Jean-Sebastien Giguere. After the goal, the Habs came back to life, dominating play and out-shooting the Leafs 10-3 in the second period.
Unfortunately for the Canadiens, they just couldn't keep the momentum going, and they started to look slow and disorganized again in the third. The Leafs didn't have a lot going on either, but playing against a listless Habs squad, they didn't need much to pull out the win and closed it out in the third with an empty netter.
Final score: Leafs 3 - Habs 1
Habs' scorers: Michael Cammalleri (10)
Leafs' scorers: Phil Kessel (11), Tomas Kaberle (1), Kris Versteeg (9)
Three stars: 1. Tomas Kaberle, 2. Phil Kessel, 3. Fredrik Sjostrom
1. Auld let in two weak goals but was not the reason the Habs lost.
Auld didn't look very good on either of the Leafs' first period goals, but I guess that is to be expected from a guy who was making only his third start of the season. On the first goal he didn't have enough focus to track the puck properly, and it ended up in the back of the net.
The second goal—Tomas Kaberle's first of the season—was a low shot, unscreened, that Auld would have had if he had tried to stop the puck with his pad or stick. Instead, he sort of bent over to try to stop it with his glove and he missed it completely, resulting in what ended up being the winning goal.
Fortunately for the Habs, Auld settled down after the second goal and made enough saves to keep them in it when they looked like they needed a nap. When the Canadiens finally came to life in the second, Auld wasn't tested very much, but when he was he was there to make the save.
It makes you think that as the season progresses, the Habs might have to try to get Auld into some more games in order to keep him sharp. More importantly, if the Habs hope to have a long playoff run they need Price to be rested and fresh come spring time.
Price is currently on pace to play 74 games, and that is far too many if they want their star keeper to be in prime form come playoff time.
2. So much for being disciplined.
The Habs gave the Leafs three power-play opportunities in the game, which might not seem like the end of the world, but two of them were back-to-back—both by Jeff Halpern—in the first period. These PKs seemed to sap a lot of energy out of an already lethargic Habs squad and helped keep the momentum going for the Leafs.
Good thing for the Habs that the Leafs don't have a great power play, at only 25th in the league and operating at a 14.8 percent efficiency. That combined with the Habs league-leading 89 percent efficient penalty kill meant that the Leafs weren't able to do any damage on the scoreboard.
As I have said before, when the Canadiens are not skating they tend to get themselves into trouble, and their penalties last night were because the sluggish Habs were not moving their feet.
Sluggishness is never a good thing, especially for a team whose success is based on skating and speed. But the Canadiens played a passive trapping style from the drop of the puck when they should have been attacking the Leafs. The result was that, like the first period against Detroit, they were chasing the puck and taking penalties in the process.
I understand fatigue as a reason for the Canadiens' tired play, but these constant, untimely trips to the penalty box have to be addressed.
3. Cammalleri and Plekanec make beautiful music together.
Michael Cammalleri was placed back on the Tomas Plekanec line in the second period and played some inspired hockey as a result.
It's been pretty evident that Cammalleri was not happy playing with struggling center Scott Gomez but, being the team guy that he is, would never publicly say anything to that effect.
The reality is that he has looked everything from angry, annoyed, frustrated and despondent while playing with Gomez over the last few weeks. And while Cammalleri was still getting points on the second line, last night you saw why he truly belongs on the first line with Plekanec.
He is the Canadiens' best sniper, and he should be playing with their best center.
After going through a four-game goal drought, Cammalleri suddenly has had three goals in his last four games. With no official word yet on the status of Gomez and with huge back-to-back games against Philadelphia and Boston next week, I think it is time for Martin to reunite his top two offensive players permanently.
The Habs could certainly use the scoring punch.
4. P.K Subban continues to look lost on the ice.
To steal a line from RDS play-by-play announcer and former Habs forward Benoit Brunet, "Aye, aye, aye!"
In his second game back since being banished to the press box for three, Subban continued to struggle last night. Subban, who looks like a shell of the player who started the season with fire in his eyes, looked hesitant, confused and handcuffed out there. He looked like he was trying not to try, trying to be low-key and trying not to make any waves. Moreover, Subban is no longer yapping on the ice like he was at the beginning of the season; it all looks very unnatural to him.
It's a bit painful to watch.
So it seems like Jacques Martin's plan to reel Subban in worked in that he is definitely a subdued version of the player who got fans excited only a few weeks ago. The problem, however, is that his three-game stint in the press box seems to have turned a confident, brash young man into a nervous and tentative player.
For the first time this season, Subban actually looked like a rookie, and this once again raises the specter of Jacques Martin's poor track record with young players. Remember that this is exactly what happened to Max Pacioretty last season: It has taken him a good 30-40 games to get his confidence back.
Subban is a player who is thought to have more mental toughness than Pacioretty, and he should be able to find his game again. It won't happen over night, but I think that over the next few weeks he will slowly come back to life.
The only question is how long it will take and have the Habs, who might now be without the services of Jaroslav Spacek, done more damage than good?
5. The Habs have no net presence.
While the Habs are a skilled team, they do not have size up front and have few players that excel at crashing the net and posting up in front of the goaltender.
The Habs had sequences where they controlled the play but took far too many shots with no one standing in front of the goaltender. You are, generally speaking, not going to beat an experienced goaltender like Giguere without some kind of traffic in front of him.
The Habs had the same problem on the power play, often rifling shots right at Giguere's chest with no one standing in front. Part of the problem is a lack of patience on the part of the defensemen, particularly Subban, who seem to want to fire the puck as soon as they have a shot. The rest of the problem lies with the forwards who just don't seem to have it in their DNA to go to the front of the net.
Brian Gionta is one of the only Canadiens players who is constantly going to the front of the net, and he is the smallest player on the team.
Perhaps it's time for the Habs to look at addressing this gaping hole in the lineup, and with rumours of their interest in players like Jamie Langenbrunner, they might already be looking to move in that direction.
Standings and Next Game
The loss moves the Canadiens' record to 18-10-2, stalled at 38 points in the standings. While they are still in first place in the Northeast division, the Bruins' overtime loss to the Flyers inches them ever closer to the Habs in the standings.
The B's now have 36 points with two games in hand.
The Habs now have three days off before two critical back-to-back games in Montreal against the Flyers on Wednesday and the Bruins on Thursday. Both teams are exactly the type of physical opponents that the Habs tend to have problems against, and with the injuries slowly starting to mount, they represent the biggest challenges so far this season.
With injuries to Gomez and Spacek and problems with Subban on the back end, this is the first time this season that the Habs will truly have to deal with adversity.
How they respond will go a long way towards showing us what kind of team they really are.
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